With the college basketball regular season in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to look ahead to the conference tournament and the Big Dance.
Despite an up-and-down season, the No. 21 UCLA Bruins won the Pac-12 title outright, the program’s first conference crown of any sort since 2008. As a result, UCLA was also awarded the No. 1 seed for this week’s Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, which is pegged to start on Wednesday.
The Bruins will not have to play on the first day of competition, and will instead await the winner of Arizona State vs. Stanford. And if they can get past the Devils or Cardinal, a potential pairing with the Arizona Wildcats could be in store for the conference champs.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the Pac-12 Tourney, let’s take a step back and look at UCLA’s overall resume in preparation for Selection Sunday.
At this point, the Bruins (23-8, 13-5 Pac-12) are considered a lock to get into the field of 68, though their seeding is still up in the air. According to the most recent edition of Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology on ESPN, UCLA is currently sitting with a No. 6 seed in the South regional.
The Bruins boast a handful of impressive wins, including on the road at Colorado, at home versus Missouri and Cal, and a season-sweep of Arizona. The Wildcats have only lost six games all season, and two of those belong to the Bruins, including a decisive victory in Tucson when Zona was ranked No. 6 in the country.
Unfortunately for UCLA, every good win this year seems to have an equally impactful “bad loss” nearby.
The first that comes to mind is a November no-show against Cal Poly (17-12) at Pauley Pavilion. While the Mustangs have won 8-of-9 games and have a legit shot to run through the Big West Tournament, the Bruins should never drop a decision against an opponent of that caliber.
Then there are the conference face-plants, most notably last week’s pounding in Pullman. With a Pac-12 title on the line, the Bruins forgot to board the plane to Washington, and were absolutely blindsided by the WSU Cougars (13-18). Despite losing by a final margin of 12 points, the contest was never that close. UCLA gifted the last-place Cougs a 25-4 lead early in the first half, and the home team coasted the rest of the way.
Along the same vein, the Bruins have the dubious distinction of losing to Southern Cal (14-17) at home, and at Arizona State (20-11) by 18 points. Ultimately, UCLA could be sitting with a No. 3 or 4 seed had it not been for some of the aforementioned outcomes.
However, with at least one (possibly two or three) more games to be played, the Bruins still have an opportunity to shakes things up heading into March Madness.
Let’s say UCLA comes out on Thursday and lays an egg, akin to the performances against Arizona State, USC and WSU earlier this season. Whether it be against Stanford or ASU, another deflating defeat could drop the Bruins into the seven- or eight-seed range, making their road to the second weekend that much more daunting.
On the contrary, the Bruins could play like true conference champions and blast the No. 8 or 9 seed in the quarterfinals, setting up another golden opportunity versus the Wildcats. And if UCLA secures a 3-0 record over Arizona this season, a bump in NCAA seeding would be sure to follow. Then, in the Pac-12 Tourney finals, the Bruins may match-up with Oregon or Cal, and that would provide a chance for another solid win just before seed selection.
With an RPI of 31 and a strength-of-schedule at 33, UCLA should have no problem getting a ticket to the Dance, but just how long they’ll be on the floor is contingent on seeding.
If the Bruins take advantage of their top-seed in the conference tournament, they could earn themselves a clear path to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.